Loncon days and Loncon ways

Where I belong, at last

Where I belong, at last

Well, that might have been my last Worldcon – let’s be realistic. For why? cries fandom bitterly. Well, most Worldcons are abroad, and I justify the expense if (a) it’s somewhere I would want to holiday anyway and (b) I have a career to talk about. (a) isn’t going to happen soon (though I shall reconsider very strongly if Helsinki wins the bid for 2017) and (b) – well, who knows. I did come away with inspiration for how to progress with one novel and insight into how to revise another. The first of those is sf, the second isn’t. Both would need to sell to be worth talking about. So. Last. Maybe.

But if it was, it was a great way to go out.

Loncon3 will always be remembered by me – and Beloved – as her first con. And (I breathe a sigh of relief) she enjoyed it. It was a delight to introduce her to old friends that I’ve known for years and watch them get along. One morning, when I had to scoot on ahead for the panel I was moderating, she strolled casually along from the hotel in her own time chatting all the way with Stephen Baxter. (And that’s quite a bit of strolling: see below.) She was looking up events of her own in the programme that she might like to go to, and did. (Not always getting in: again, see below.) It even got to the stage of me tentatively suggesting that we could give Octocon a go next year. You know, like, together.

Other things I liked:

The programme was as every Worldcon should be, i.e. crammed so full of good stuff that you would need multiple clones to get through every item of interest in the time available. Every item (at least the ones I experienced) had helpful and informative speakers, all of whom were where and when they were meant to be by the time the panel started (looking at you, Toronto). Putting something like that together and making it work is a colossal achievement.

Looking down the concourse

Looking down the concourse

The ExCel was a great venue, physically and spiritually. Physically, because it can get everyone in; spiritually because it’s part of a space-age metropolis built on the ghosts of Victorian docklands, the scene of so many great stories. Where else are you going to put the cream of worldwide science fiction?

(It is also huge, to the tune of >500 metres, and I’ve picked up a lot of complaints on Facebook about the sheer amount of walking required, as though the con committee could have somehow warped space to shrink the distance, or moved the con to the other end (hence to the detriment of everyone whose hotel was at the east end instead the west). And okay, I’ve mentioned the walking a few times myself. But I don’t complain. I’m sure I walked less far each day than in Boston or Denver or Glasgow. It’s just that when you’re doing it all in one building, in a straight line, it becomes more observable. So, I observe.)

ExCel superimposed on Abingdon, for scale ...

ExCel superimposed on Abingdon, for scale …

All the social activities were concentrated in one of the spaceship-sized hangars, a.k.a. the Fan Village, lining the main concourse. I approve. One of the things I most dislike about cons is that a crowd can be a lonely place to be, and who you bump into after hours strongly depends on which hotel’s bar you happen to be in. And I loathe those hotel room parties where personal space is best measured in millimetres, and I’m trying (but can’t, due to body pressure) to lower my head to listen to someone shouting something at the level of my shoulders, or lower, which is where most people’s heads are in relation to mine. Putting everyone into one general space, with plenty of room for everyone and things to wander off and look at if you get bored, was an ideal solution.

My first panel on the use of pseudonyms and noms de plume included Guest of Honour Robin Hobb, who recorded a get-well video clip for a friend recovering from a breast cancer op with a stack of Robin Hobb novels, inter alia. What a lady.

I moderated one panel, “Sense of wonder in children’s SF”, leading to helpful discussion, recommendations of reading and writing hints for anyone interested. A little ripple of pleasure ran around the room when I announced that it was Diana Wynne Jones’s 80th birthday and she had a Google doodle in her honour. During both that panel and the Robin Hobb one I could feel my phone buzzing as Twitter informed me people were tweeting my words of wisdom as they came out of my mouth. And following me. Speaking of, a panel on how authors can/should use social media was very useful, not only for positive hints and tips, but because it helped validate some of the things I don’t do.

Dealers room, dealing

Dealers room, dealing

The dealer’s room was amply stocked and I got to sign stock, which is always nice and pushes up the value of those copies of Phoenicia’s Worlds that by some miracle remain unsigned. Sadly, one thing and another meant I never quite got round to taking in all the exhibits or the art. But what I saw, I liked.

Things on which I shall gripe:

A tiki Dalek. Obviously.

A tiki Dalek. Obviously.

I wish all panellists would grok the Green Room concept. The idea is, the panel convenes there beforehand and gets to know each other and plan it out. Some do, some don’t and prefer to go straight to the meeting room. Personally I think doing the Green Room thing is the most helpful thing a panel can do. Grab a tea/coffee/something stronger, and mindmeld. And, hey, as a panellist you’re entitled to enter the room and take a seat and generally use it as your own quiet space away from the madding crowd. If you’ve got it, use it, y’know?

It was also a shame that some panels were full to overcrowding while others were in echoing double suites that held a fraction of their capacity; and of the overcrowded ones, some had audience members turned away with varying degrees of politeness, and others had people sitting on the floor or standing unchallenged. It all seemed to depend on (a) the briefing the moderator had received and (b) the zealousness and ubiquity of the ExCel’s own security droids. I know organising a programme is hellishly difficult and there will always be room size mismatches, so I don’t complain about that (just raise an eyebrow at some of the room choices per subject …). I do however complain about the inconsistency. It feels less unfair when everyone is treated the same.

When I rule the world ...

When I rule the world …

And the 1.5 hours standing in the registration queue. Even being serenaded by this guy was only partial consolation. I know, several thousand people is a lot to process. But there must be ways … mustn’t there? Any suggestion I can make for speeding the queue up has no doubt been tried and tested and in this case discarded for what seems like a good reason. So I won’t make any. I just have a lingering feeling it could have been done better.

So. Worldcon. My last? Maybe. Or maybe not. But a very high standard for future ones, where and whenever they may be located.

Ben at Worldcon

I seem to be on the following Worldcon items: four in total, moderating one of them. Some of my co-panelists are old friends; some I at least know; some are brand new to me; so with that and a good mix of subjects, it looks like fun:

What’s In a Name?

Thursday 14th August, 16:30 – 18:00

Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb, Iain (M) Banks, Tom/Thomas Holt, James SA Corey, Mazarkis Williams: many people publish under pseudonyms, some more subtle than others. Why do writers opt for a pen-name? Why do some have more than one? How important is ‘branding’ to marketing genre fiction, and what role do genre and gender divides play in the decision?

Bella Pagan(M), Catherine Butler, Robin Hobb, Ben Jeapes, Seanan McGuire

Religion in fantasy: numinous or name-checking?

Friday 15th August, 12:00 – 13:30

Religion is central to much fantasy, from the invented faiths of Westeros to exploration of real-world beliefs in novels like “Alif the Unseen”. How do such works explore the social and political consequences of faith? Do they portray religions fully rooted in the texture of daily life and community or just as window-dressing? And to what extent can invented religions ever reflect the complexity of real-world religious experiences and worldviews?

Jenny Blackford (M), Naomi Alderman, Grania Davis, Jonathan Oliver, Ben Jeapes

Sense of Wonder in Children’s SF

Saturday 16th August, 10:00 – 11:00

YA books are well known for their dystopias and their grand adventures. What is it about these categories that have so effectively captured the young adult imagination? When Alice walked off the literary page she opened the door to a truly wondrous world filled with unimaginable things. Since then literary children have latched onto that sense of wonder in literature from Neverland, to Narnia, Hogwarts, and Panem. What is this “sense of wonder” within literature and how does it continue to “blow the minds” of young readers? What are the most spectacular feats of worldbuilding in the YA canon? Where can we find the best aliens? And what about those wondrous infernal machines?

Farah Mendlesohn, KV Johansen, Ian McDonald, Ben Jeapes (M), Jo Fletcher

Adult Readers Within the YA Market

Saturday 16th August, 13:30 – 15:00

Age recommendations on books are meant to be a useful feature for readers. What are the risks and benefits associated with age classification, and is it a necessary evil or a marketing mistake? And what’s all this we hear about the emerging “New Adult” market? Will this have on YA books? Moreover, how do the growing number of adult readers affect the YA market? Are we leaving actual young adult readers behind in favor of attracting adult buyers?

Sarah Ash, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Bella Pagan, Joshua Bilmes, Ben Jeapes

Cons and pros and cons

Last Saturday saw me at Andromeda One, an inaugural one-day convention held in that there Brum and named for the legendary bookshop of that self-same metropolis (whose equally legendary proprietor was present).

And a very good con it was, too. It was held in the Custard Factory, a former … well, custard factory, now converted to a complex full of arty craft stuff and healthy wholefood restaurants venues. Also some very interesting sculptures, which in a Pertwee-era Dr Who would have come alive.

Green Man

Green Man

Impressively for a small-scale do, which had only been planned since May, they managed parallel streams with enough topics of interest to make me think seriously about which one I should be in. In the end – I only had time for four items, plus lunch, before needing to be back home in the evening – I stayed in the main venue, a slightly claustrophobic theatre of a hundred seats or so, for discussion on genre crossover, prediction in sf (or not, and should it, and why or why not?), what exactly is that urban fantasy’n’stuff, and an enjoyable interview with Paul Cornell. All good, writerly subjects, you will note. Elsewhere there were workshops on editing, self-publishing … in fact, if memory serves, even more writerly stuff. It was a very writerly con, which may be one reason I enjoyed it so much.

A dragon and, um, Aslan?

A dragon and, um, Aslan?

I can well see this becoming a regional fixture, like Bristolcon a few hours to the south, and I wish it all the best.

I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting with Worldcon, still fresh in my mind.

For sheer glitz, of course, Worldcon wins hands down. Time was that Worldcon was once literally the WORLDcon. It was and still is the home of the Hugos, which are voted on by that year’s Worldcon membership, and so have their cachet because they were once therefore voted on by the world’s fans, so the winner in each category probably was the best in that category in the world. That reputation still counts for something, even if the total votership is now not only a fraction of the world’s fans but a fraction of the world’s con-going fans.



I won’t deny that having a Program Participant ribbon on my Worldcon badge put an extra swagger into my step – yeah, bitches, I’m participating! And I have access to the Green Room! (I had a single cup of tea there …) But you can come away with the feeling that the whole paraphernalia of badges, ribbons etc is – or has become – almost as important to some people as the actual content of the con. The joy of something like Andromeda One is that no one gives a toss about the add-ons. The point of being there is being there and having fun and talking about science fiction. The bigger a con gets, of course, the more professional-like it has to become; for what I paid in San Antonio I should damn well expect a professionally designed and printed name badge rather than a clear plastic holder and a blank card to write my own name on. At Andromeda One, I would expect nothing more, preferring that the pretty minimal entry fee went into the con itself – as of course it did (and at least they provided a pen!).

I was surprised when I came back and started reading reports to find criticism of Worldcon for being predominantly white, wealthy (apparently flying in the face of fandom demographics?) and misogynistic. I get the feeling this is more criticism than usual, but I’ve generally kept my head down for these things, and I haven’t been to a Worldcon since 2009, so I’m probably behind.

For the first of those two points, I can only say that yes, I’m white, and while I’m not wealthy I am able to put enough by that I can enjoy this kind of thing in a style becoming to it without incurring debt or a guilty conscience.

But, I gather that for all the recent advances in gender parity of panels etc, there were appalling scenes of white guys on panels simply talking over or even shouting down women on panels, which should never happen. For that, the moderators must be held responsible. At present the only moderator training is a page of notes on how to be a moderator – maybe something more hands-on should be arranged in future? Possibly involving cattle prods and Blofeldesque seats that feed directly into piranha pools for offenders. At Andromeda One, I suspect that any similar scenes would have resulted in the panel, if not the audience, rising to their feet and bodily ejecting the perpetrator into the central pool outside the venue. Why not the same at Worldcon? What has happened to make people just sit there and take it when the primary objective ought to be enjoying themselves at a science fiction con, not taking crap?

I’m pleased to say I saw nothing like that on any Worldcon event I attended. The only all-male panel I saw was the one I was on, the Iain M. Banks memorial. But I was meant to have been Pat Cadigan, and I have seen moderator Vince Doherty in a kilt, so maybe that counts.

I have no answers to this – it’s currently baffling, and being tackled by, people far more knowledgeable than me.

But, yeah, Andromeda One. Look out for Andromeda Two and sign up.